The Evolving Face of Biscuits: From Sugars to Digestives We no longer have to eat unhealthy stuff as we have much better options available

By Amrinder Singh

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India is the world's third largest biscuit manufacturing country after the USA and China. The story of India's biscuit industry is over a century old but it was only in the later part of the 20th century that confectioners democratized this food through mass production and found a way to market it to the nation's non-elite households at affordable costs. Today, the rural sector accounts for 55per cent of the country's total biscuit consumption. Increasing incomes, associations of affluence with richer, more quality biscuits, new manufacturing units, growing health consciousness, baking process innovations, branding and packaging are driving large shifts in consumer preferences.

Categorized by industry, biscuit manufacturers may be divided into organized and unorganized sectors. The former accounts for about 70 per cent of the market share by value. Specialized local bakers are restricted by costs and deficiencies in achieving economies of scale. Excellent distribution networks, low prices and a high degree of specialization have allowed the industry to gain enviable penetration even in India's remotest hinterlands.

Sugar as Celebration Food

The earliest biscuits in India were made using ordinary wheat flour, sugar and saturated oil in industrial processes involving mixing of ingredients, moulding, baking and cooling. Before the onset of lifestyle disease epidemics such as diabetes and obesity, which form a heavy burden of disease on household "Out-of-pocket' healthcare expenditures, sugar was the chief differentiator among different manufacturers. The quality of white sugar used was taken as a signal of the richness of the biscuit and enabled competitive pricing based on appearance. The Food and Agriculture Organization observes that India's white sugar industry, mostly obtained from sugarcane, is the country's second largest agro-industry after cotton. That is why glucose biscuits are considered the precursor to all other biscuits that appear in grocery store shelves today. They were easy to make, economically packaged and universally available.

One of the earliest innovations in biscuit variety was salted biscuits which reduced the amount of sugar that was poured in the batter and added common salt instead. This biscuit was soon made and packaged with thinner crusts (crackers) to give an appearance of being lighter in weight, also more digestible and suited to low-fat diets. In truth, however, these biscuits still carried wheat starch, which forms 80per cent of the wheat flour by calorific value and can easily add to body fat when consumed in large amounts and not followed by physical activity.

From Taste to Flavor

Cream biscuits, another popular variety, add milk and saturated oils to the basic formula while enhancing taste and sensory experiences. Interestingly, the five tastes that we recognize, namely, sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami, are different from the flavours that the human tongue can detect. This is because the sensation of flavor requires both the tongue and the nose to identify itself. That is why we are able to process and experience hundreds and thousands of different flavors. This freedom of flavor gave biscuit makers more room to experiment with. By modifying the proportions of flour, oil, types of sugar, fillings and leavening agents, as well as by varying the temperature and period of time required while mixing or baking, new explosions in the type of biscuits accessible by menus emerged both across India and the world. There were now many more, richer ingredients including nuts, raisins and chocolates. Textures could be varied and colours and aromas were added artificially. Butter, a prime article of affluent taste, greatly added to biscuit diversity.

The rise of Lifestyle Diseases and Concerns on Digestion

However, the chief collateral damage was suffered by individual health. Rich tastes require control and discipline to be cherished. Any good food taken in moderate quantities is sufficient to steer clear of complicated medical conditions that restrict the amount of sugar one can consume. With greater automation and intelligent technologies, sedentary lifestyles became the norm. With the reduction in physical activity, lurking dangers to well being such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases and so on, began to manifest in public healthcare concerns. Countless studies were commissioned and carried out to study the effect of sugar and naked carbs on human health. Fashionable new keto diets were invented based on limited samples of the population and many myths were perpetuated.

In response, the biscuit industry began exploring ways to make biscuits more compatible with consumer health objectives. One of the major issues with biscuit consumption as a regular snack is that it piles on sugars and affects glucose levels in the body too rapidly for it to be converted into energy by insulin in the blood. For this reason, cereal foods, which have formed part of the staple diet of man for millennia, are recommended to be eaten with a lot of fibres to delay digestion and release of sugars into the bloodstream. Attempts were made to add more whole wheat flours to biscuit recipes. But this process, removes the hardness and character of the biscuit, making it too soft and fluffy to coagulate correctly. Another alternative was to add fibres as an extra ingredient over the flattened mould of dough before it was baked. This allowed the components to settle in and form part of the structure.

Today, we know that biscuits are best enjoyed in moderation. By using ingredients derived from plants, biscuits are still an enjoyable snack to relish. There are many more varieties of biscuits for the Indian consumer to choose from. The main trend of specialization of biscuits for different health imperatives has made the biscuit space more enhanced in its offerings and will continue to improve moods and endorphins for years to come.

Amrinder Singh

Director, Bonn Group of Industries

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